Digital Piracy Trends – 2021 Edition Part I

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New Year, New Format

After a long year, it is again time to guestimate which new trends will wrangle through the web of digital culture, consumption patterns, new services, products and distribution channels, security issues, regulations, counterfeit and piracy watch lists, trade deals, and vendor hyperbole to make it onto rightsholders’ digital brand protection strategy in 2021. This year we feature seven trends, listed in no particular order.

Before turning to 2021 in Part II, a few words must be said on the challenging year we all would like to put behind us. The year 2020 gave us a global pandemic, inevitably leading to oodles of marketing churn from all industries using pandemic related keywords to drive traffic. A glance at Google Trends shows the rationale behind the tactic.

-Google Trends 31 December 2020

Generic ‘now more than ever’ campaigns failed to capture the mood, getting lost in the sea of indistinguishable bland messaging attempting to strike the ‘right’ tone. However, imaginative marketing with a playful tone provided delight and much needed respite. For example: Brewdog’s genius handling of a copycat IPA from Aldi turned a potentially expensive legal battle into a commercial success for both parties.[i] Budweiser’s reworking of the classic ‘Whassup’ advert, combining nostalgia with a quarantine-twist.[ii] McDonald’s viral McRib tweet uniting corporate messaging with meme culture.[iii] Heinz’s direct-to-consumer offering provided the brand with a new sales channel as consumers turned to online ordering, and the opportunity to sell odd items unlikely to justify the supermarket shelf space i.e. personalised Baked Beans.[iv]

We will do our best to entirely avoid the most misery-inducing event of recent times, bypassing the subject and any impact it may or may not have had on digital brand protection, media consumption, and ecommerce; and just hope for better times.

Instead, a retrospective on our 2020 premonitions. Last year was the first edition of predicting new trends, a task only worthy of time if reflected upon with the benefit of hindsight. If for no other reason but a reminder on the speed of change within the digital economy. For example, Quibi was meant to herald a new era of short-form mobile-oriented video content, backed by Disney, NBC, Sony, Goldman Sachs and many more. It was not meant to be, with the project officially closing down in December, barely registering a blip on the radar.[v] Let’s see if our 2020 predictions fared any better….

Prediction 01: Cloudflare as a Registrar

We said “Always coming across Cloudflare IP addresses when investigating websites? In 2020, websites will also be using Cloudflare for registrar services. The Silicon Valley security company launched the offering in September 2019 – already infringers have started to migrate over domain names, benefitting from at cost registrations. Fortunately, reporting to Cloudflare as a registrar uses the familiar webform; unfortunately, each issue must be reported independently.”

True, and some. Cloudflare has gone from strength-to-strength over the past year. 12 moths after going public the US-based web infrastructure company doubled in value, and continues to rise. Cloudflare has introduced a slew of new products and made smart acquisitions to round out their offerings, including purchasing S2 Systems Corporation back in January[vi] and Linc in December.[vii] Not only are pirates making use of Cloudflare offering registrar services, they are benefiting from other services such as Cloudflare Stream[viii] to deliver on demand video content at scale.

Whilst rightsholders continue to denounce Cloudflare’s position on piracy emanating from their network, the European Commission saw fit to remove the company from the Counterfeit and Piracy Watch List in 2020.[ix] Cloudflare’s omission from the watch list is just one of many issues with the Commission’s latest effort into drafting a credible list. Discussing the abject list compiled by the Commission is for another article, another time. Suffice to say, whilst rightsholders winced reading the list, Cloudflare’s shareholders must have rejoiced at the news

Disclaimer: this website uses Cloudflare services for security and performance

Prediction 02: Game Over for Insta-Bots

We said: “Bot activity promoting counterfeits has long blighted Instagram. Bots continually span new accounts endlessly uploading the same posts and images. This era is coming to an end. Not entirely, but the scale of Bot activity will decrease to reflect the aggressive approach of Facebook [parent company of Instagram] in ending such abuse. Undoubtedly, infringers will continue to exploit Instagram content governance policies by switching tactics to avoid the platform’s proactive sweeps.”

In the first 9 months of 2020 Facebook deleted 4.5 billion fake accounts;[x] on this projection 2020 will significantly beat the 2019 record. With the US election in November, the final quarter is likely to trend even higher.[xi] The figures do not give a detailed breakdown of whether the accounts deleted were Bots or Faked accounts. A quick definition from DBP:

“A Bot account is generated through the use of automated software; a fake account is a covert account created by a person without supplying real user information to the platform……It is typically harder to detect fake accounts compared to Bot accounts.”

-Digital Brand Protection: Investigating Brand Piracy & Intellectual Property Abuse

As such, it is likely, and usually the case, the majority of deleted accounts are those Bot generated. We will know more when the full 2020 Transparency Report is released.[xii]

Anecdotally, we have detected far less counterfeit associated Bot activity on Instagram. However, surprisingly, Bot activity has not fallen off to the same degree on Facebook. Generally the Facebook Bot activity links to third-party websites, which are part of a chain eventually leading to counterfeit or pirated content, or often phishing websites. However, this does not seem a valid reason for the lack of efficacy on Facebook’s part, the Bot activity on platform is straightforward to detect. Even by an algorithm.

Prediction 03: Amazon Spill-Over

We said “The past year saw significant changes to Amazon Brand Registry and the launch of Project Zero. Neither initiative is a silver-bullet to the platform’s counterfeit woes, but there was certainly a displacement of infringers over the Christmas period. A small shift of merchants away from Amazon gives a relatively large boost to other platforms, ie eBay. After years of retraction, eBay saw a mini revival, in terms of scale of brand piracy. A declining giant must be re-evaluated for 2020.”

We could not have been more right about eBay. But partly for the wrong reason. eBay has delivered in 2020, with all metrics soaring over the past 12 months.[xiii] A massive reversal of fortunes for the once ailing ecommerce old guard. The surge in gross merchandise value sold has been largely put down to the general boost in ecommerce caused by lockdown measures. Whilst true in part, this is overly cynical. The ecommerce platform rebranded a few years ago, moving to a cleaner, more modern brand identity.[xiv] This only slowed the decline against upstart ecommerce platforms focused on second-hand products, such as Thred Up, Depop, Vinted etc. But eBay continued to bleed merchants over to Amazon.[xv] Slowly, eBay has repositioned, with an emphasis on winning back merchants. Rather than being the place for second-hand items, competing against more agile new entrants, or trying to be the one-stop online shop, as Amazon has that tied up, eBay wisely worked on selling the eBay dream. The platform is home for start-ups and entrepreneurs – sellers can begin their own small business journey, buyers get the pleasure of supporting small businesses.[xvi] A genius piece of rebranding and repositioning to create an opportunity in the market, even if the tactic was taken from the playbook of one-time foe Alibaba. Naturally, Amazon has responded by promoting small business on their platform. eBay has the advantage on this front, as they are not direct competitors with their own merchants.

Another interesting development from Amazon’s side was the creation of the Counterfeit Crimes Unit.[xvii] A team of prosecutors, former intelligence agents, expensive corporate lawyers, and data analysts. This new proactive approach has so far yielded very little for rightsholders. Except for some great PR. However, if the history of Brand Registry is to go by, its best to give the new initiative some time to get fully operational before writing it off.

As some new trends come, other things stay the same. In the same prediction we concluded by stating Alibaba and Amazon will remain the 2 most important marketplaces from a rightsholder enforcement perspective. Looking at the submissions to the European and US counterfeit and piracy watch lists, it is clear this holds true. Alibaba and Amazon were the two most reported online marketplaces during the submissions process. The US watch list in particular is noteworthy, as US rightsholders and trade associations found ways of reporting a US company to a watch list w focused on foreign companies. Amazon was targeted through its regional versions ie, etc being listed in the report as ‘Amazon’s Foreign Domains’.[xviii] Amazon called the move political, citing tensions with the US administration.[xix] The excuse would be plausible but for the overwhelming weight of submissions from rightsholders. Although, the European counterpart list does not take the approach of giving weight to overwhelming evidence, they concluded neither Alibaba, Amazon, or indeed eBay, should be included, despite being the most reported online marketplaces.  

Prediction 04: Listen Out for Audiobooks

We said: “Audiobooks are booming. Reported sales figures are sharply increasing year-on-year, being the fatest growing segment within the publishing industry. The pirates are never far behind the market – in fact, they are often ahead of the curve! The availability of audiobooks on pirate platforms has grown, and will continue whilst the consumer-base surges. Also, software to strip DRM from major platforms such as Audible are widely promoted on Reddit, Medium and even wikiHow.”

Audiobook piracy has grown massively. On five leading torrent indexes, the prevalence of audiobooks has increased by an average of 94% year-on-year. Furthermore, websites previously focused on distributing pirated eBooks have started to feature audiobooks, providing another means for illicit distribution. Finally, an area that has grown significantly, and which shouldn’t be a surprise is YouTube. Free audiobooks on YouTube are rife. Users only need to search for “free audiobooks”, “full length audiobooks”, or other searches very clearly seeking pirated content to glimpse at the scale of the issue. It seems that whilst our prediction of piracy increasing was correct, the assumption that enforcement would track alongside was incorrect. The audiobook piracy issue must be recognised and dealt with.

Compounding the issue is the ease in which videos can be downloaded from YouTube. We spoke last year about the widespread advertising of DRM-circumvention software on social media platforms. Whilst the UK develops stronger enforcement mechanisms for rightsholders against circumvention infringement, see the Nintendo case,[xx] the US struggles to strike the right balance. For example, the ‘GitHub youtube-dl’ case highlights the issue.[xxi] In October, the US music industry represented by the RIAA, reported the software under the anti-circumvention provisions of the DMCA, Section 1201.[xxii] Initially GitHub removed the software, only to reinstate it a few weeks later, after significant online pressure. Reinstatement was accompanied with a bullish blog post “Standing up for developers: youtube-dl is back”.[xxiii] The blog is strange, citing legitimate uses of the software as “changing playback speeds for accessibility” – a feature that is a standard feature within the video player settings; and “preserving evidence in the fight for human rights”. It will be interesting to see how robust GitHub’s determination to stand up for developers is if a developer starts distributing circumvention software impacting parent company Microsoft.

Regardless of the rights or wrongs of this specific case, the issue is the ease in which audiobooks are being uploaded to YouTube, and the ease in which they can be downloaded. File-sharing is like toothpaste, once it is out of the tube it can never be put back in, rightsholders only play is to try cleaning up the mess.

Our own research also suggests audiobook related keywords are now more commonly being integrated into large scam networks. For example, a large network we are currently investigating involving thousands of domain names, websites, and companies has started including audiobooks titles as keywords for traffic-generating websites within the network. Audiobooks are now one of the products available part of the ‘subscription’, alongside traditional stalwarts of films, music, games, eBooks etc. These websites are designed solely to capture users from search engines, then divert them towards other websites in the network to fraudulently capture personal data and payment information.

Prediction 05: Mobile-Only

We said: “Optimising a website for mobile devices is vital for visibility and SEO. However, infringers must balance visibility against potential disruption measures rightsholders are likely to undertake upon discovery of an illicit website. More websites will choose to simply focus on mobile devices, knowing most monitoring is automated and is heavily skewed towards the desktop experience. Some mobile-only websites are built to replicate popular platforms, leading to significant consumer confusion.”

This is hard to quantify. Supposedly almost 51% of internet traffic is from mobile devices.[xxiv] Regardless of the accuracy of such stats, all data shows the trend towards traffic from mobile devices is still increasing. We can say infringers naturally adapt to consumer behaviour and therefore our 2020 prediction must follow. Or we could just accept we do not have the ability to adequately quantify this prediction and move on. We can point you to Sandvine for analysis of internet and mobile internet trends.[xxv]

On a somewhat related note, the mobile app turned ecommerce major player Wish went public a week before Christmas.[xxvi] Wish has had its troubles over the year, including the highly-publicised ‘$20 Saddam Hussein’ advert.

Regardless, Wish’s IPO continues to show the power of ecommerce platforms understanding consumer behaviour and adapting the user-experience accordingly. Unfortunately for Wish, now the platform is a public company, rightsholders are likely, probably sooner rather than later, to make their displeasure at Wish’s weak content governance policies and systems known. Investors tend to listen up to such accusations, hopefully this will procure better measures out of Wish.

Prediction 06: Connecting Digital Risks

We said: “In 2020, rightsholders will start to better connect certain digital risks with brand protection. Specific security issues and reputation management – of an organisation or individual – will warp the understanding of brand protection and therefore the approach taken. Trendy services such as dark net monitoring for counterfeits will be replaced with value-adding services, such as monitoring Pastebin for breaches and taking responsibility for phishing scams which abuse brand assets.”

Wrong. For the most part. This time, instead of predicting maybe we should just hope for this to catch on in 2021: “Over the next year we will see brand protection strategies assimilating more widely applicable services, such as digital risk profiling and social media auditing to deliver greater value”. This point now falls into the category of ‘wishing thinking’ rather than a prediction. In fact, in Part II we discuss the decoupling of brand protection and security concerns which should be in scope of a digital brand protection strategy given the harm caused to brand assets.

Overall, the 2020 edition got a lot right. A couple of other interesting stories in 2020 deserve a brief mention. Firstly, the Internet Archive’s decision to remove all restrictions from their digital library, branding as “The National Emergency Library”.[xxvii] It must be said the Internet Archive is a wonderful project, deserving of great praise and respect for digitising, storing, and preserving our history and culture. Regardless, it was always going to be a step too far for any platform to use the Executive tactic of calling a national emergency to grant itself extended powers. This tactic is exceedingly common, for example, in the government’s actions against TikTok.[xxviii] The Authors Guild and the conglomerate of major publishers took incisive action to put a stop to the emergency library. This was a situation screaming out for a Brewdog-Aldi type resolution. But given the acrimonious history between the parties such a positive outcome for all was never likely to happen.

The final story of 2020 we shall highlight is the music industry’s war march against Twitch,[xxix] one of the largest streaming platforms in the world. The platform had an average concurrent viewership of 1.44 million in March 2020. Twitch is geared towards gamers and gaming culture, with streamers broadcasting themselves playing video games. There are also other categories of streams, but gaming is the core of the platform. When it comes to broadcasting a video game, Twitch relies on the symbiotic relationship between the rightsholders and streamers. Having popular personalities stream a new release is now a central component to any video game launch strategy. However, there are numerous copyright issues at stake for the music industry, from streamers including copyright protected music in the background of videos, to lucrative sync licences. The relationship is not seen as mutually beneficial, but rather as blatant copyright infringement with no renumeration for rightsholders. It is not a surprise that the music industry is demanding Twitch (and parent company Amazon) negotiate a broader deal with higher royalties. An interesting case to follow over the next year.

Join us for Digital Piracy Trends – 2021 Edition Part II where we will turn our thoughts to the year ahead.

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[xvi] See the #ebay25 campaign for example